Like a lot of the clothing guys wear today, the leather jacket got its start as a utilitarian object. There was no need for a bomber jacket, a motorcycle jacket or a racing jacket before the inventions of the airplane, the motorcycle or the automobile. But leather jackets didn’t make their widespread style debut until after World War II, when the idea of leather for style, instead of purely for function, started seeping into popular culture.
After sky-rocketing to popularity by way of Marlon Brando in the film The Wild One, the motorcycle jacket became such a symbol of youth in revolt that it was banned in schools for an entire year in the mid-1950s. This helped place them on the backs of guys who wanted to telegraph "rebel cool," gaining popularity throughout the 60s, 70s, and 80s.
“[For] everybody from Elvis to The Beatles, to The Stones, every psychedelic band from the Jefferson Airplane to the Grateful Dead, it was like a rite of passage,” said Michael Paradise, a former employee of North Beach Leathers who now owns The Stronghold, a heritage clothing boutique in Los Angeles. “You signed a recording contract, you got your first paycheck, you went to North Beach Leather.”
They’re now an indispensable part of a man’s wardrobe — and guys who work in more casual settings can get away with swapping a minimal black, brown or navy leather jacket for a blazer. It’s more durable, water repellent, and looks just as good over jeans as it does with a pair of tailored trousers. With so many options on the market, finding the perfect one for you can take a lot of time and research — but it’s well worth slowing down to do so.
Unlike other clothing, buying a leather jacket is like buying a piece of furniture. Pick the right version and you’ll have it forever. Go with the wrong thing, and you'll end up making an expensive mistake. To help shorten your list of candidates, we compiled our favorites makers across the four major categories, motorcycle, bomber, racing, and shearling jackets. We also spoke with experts — click the button below — about style, fit, quality, and care to better inform your big spend.
The Best Leather Jackets You Can Buy
Schott's an American classic. Founded in 1913 by Irving Schott, the brand's credited with being both the first to put a zipper on a jacket and the first to debut the style we now know as a motorcycle jacket. They sold the first one in 1928 at a Harley Davidson store in NYC.
Japanese label The Real McCoy's was founded in the early 2000's by vintage seller Hitoshi Tsujimoto. He'd been inspired by American staples like denim, T-shirts, leather jackets, and the ilk and sought out his own way of paying homage, by making replicas. They've become some of the most sought after garments — arguably even more so than the vintage pieces the designs reference.
Three cheers for Vanson! The brand, founded in 1974, originally set its sights on selling moto jackets with improved performance and protective elements. Clearly the ideas were a success. They remain a trusty option for steelheads and stylists alike.
Freenoth Cloth, although new, specializes in timeless American titans like leather jackets and jeans. Every single one they sell is hand-cut and -sewn in California.
Simmons Bilt was a brand that launched in Oakland, California just after 1900 but closed by 1930. It's back, though, by way of a dedicated few designers committed to revitalizing it. They follow templates true to the era and emphasize craftsmanship to the same degree.
Y'2 Leather has been around since 1998. On top of its now 23 years in the industry, its founders boast more than 45 more prior to its inception. They know everything and everyone. As such, they can oversee (and ask for) the employment of unique leathers, processes, and finishes, making for more interesting final products.
An homage to the founder's father and his two brothers, David Himel's Himel Bros. is a Toronto-based leather brand that uses imported, proprietary materials — mostly from Japan.
Dunhill's roots are in everything automotive. The luxury brand made pipes for smoking while driving, lighters, and, of course, jackets. These came later, long after the business was established in 1893, but by the 1970s the brand boasted a collection comprising over 2,000 products.
Think of Fine Creek founder Yoshikatsu Yamazaki as the mad scientist of leather. He sources the finest materials and finishes them with his own original tans.
Eastman Leather Clothing specializes in reproductions of WW2-era garments. "The nostalgia behind these styles is what makes them attractive. They were born out of a time of necessity, and designed for a specific purpose - to function and protect under adverse and challenging conditions. Since then they have become timeless design classics, appealing to the rugged utilitarian image," the brand's about page states. Couldn't have said it better myself.
The Cast, located on Orchard St in Manhattan's Lower East Side, has been around since 2004. They're punk, family-owned, and super, effing premium. Come here for a bespoke leather jacket that not only looks the part but was made by people who built the scene.